Turkey must tone down the Gaza flotilla rhetoric

Gaza flotilla deaths notwithstanding, government leaders in Turkey are inflaming regional tensions and undermining their own goals with their response to the Israeli raid on the Gaza-bound ships.

Even considering the shock and sorrow over the tragic deaths of eight Turks and a Turkish-American aboard the Gaza-bound flotilla of Turkish vessels, the rhetorical response from Turkish officials has been over the top.

Turkey’s government leaders have called the Israeli raid on the flotilla a “massacre,” likened it to 9/11, and branded it “state terrorism.” President Abdullah Gul said Israel committed “one of the biggest mistakes ever in its history” and said that relations between the two countries – once close allies – “will never be the same again.”

The response fails to take into account the confusion on board the main aid ship Marmara and violence from both sides. It overlooks advance diplomatic attempts by Israel to head off the blockade-running flotilla. It forgets the existential threat to Israel by Hamas, and Turkey’s own struggle with Kurdish terrorists. It makes light of the word “massacre,” which is the polite way in Turkey to describe the killing of Armenians at the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

The rhetoric matters less in diplomatic circles, where back channels and ceremony have a way of repairing things. It matters much more on the street, where it can fuel public opinion and stir mindless emotionalism. And the street in Turkey this week saw angry mourners shouting “death to Israel” while the head of the Turkish Muslim charity that organized the flotilla gloated over the martyrdom of the victims.

Indeed, Turkey’s ambassador to Washington said high emotions at home might force Turkey to break relations with Israel if it does not acquiesce to Turkey’s demands of an apology, an independent investigation, and an end to the Gaza blockade.

The Middle East does not need another country of fist-shakers, and that’s why the tone in Turkey is of such concern. Not just this incident, but others have increased anti-Semitism in this mostly Muslim country of about 80 million people – a democracy anchored in NATO and working on membership in the European Union.

The rhetoric, if unchecked, runs the risk of further undermining Turkey’s credibility and goal of being a regional problem solver, and of the West’s interest in Turkey as a bridge between the Muslim and Christian worlds.

Since winning power in 2002, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Muslim party, the AKP, have pursued a policy of “zero problems” on Turkey’s extensive border. It’s an attempt to better balance East and West, to solve longstanding conflicts, and to build economic, energy, and political ties with neglected neighbors such as Iran and Syria.

The balancing act is understandable, if ambitious, and much of it has been in a positive direction: fence building with Armenia and Greece, mediating between Israel and Syria and between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and reaching out to Iran – which even President Obama attempted.

But Turkey is now starting to create problems for itself and the region because of overreach. It’s become too cozy with an Iranian government driving toward nuclear arms and gunning down peaceful demonstrators who contested last year’s election.

Turkey’s recent nuclear agreement with Iran, worked out with Brazil, was ill-timed and ill-crafted. Ankara is now at odds with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who are finally on board for a new round of sanctions against Iran.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s utter spurning of Israel may make for good television at home but it does nothing to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Others are not blameless in Turkey’s overreach. The EU’s hesitancy over membership is pushing Turkey out of the Western nest. Israel is losing the public relations war with its excessiveness. But when behavior needs to change, you start with yourself, not your neighbor.

Turkey’s leaders can start by dialing down their provocative rhetoric. Or they may find it’s too late to put that genie back in the bottle.

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